It was a typical, summer afternoon as Jim Larson entered the Northern Lights Saloon, casually walking through its two swinging, front doors. Jim was the Sheriff of Wide River, a mining town in the Colorado highlands. The town was the main supply center for the silver and phosphate mines in the area as well as the many farms and cattle ranches that surrounded it. It was an economic center in the northwestern part of the territory and once Colorado became a state, many residents believed that it would be designated a county seat. Jim Larson had been the sheriff for almost eight years. He liked the town and planned on keeping his job well into the future.
As always, Jim quickly surveyed the barroom, noting to himself who was present and what they were doing. Five cowboys, local men, were playing poker at one of the round, wooden tables. The manager was in his office and the women were either upstairs or had not yet come to work. The bartender stood behind the bar and four men stood in front of it, drinking whiskey. Two of the men were miners who must have been in town that day on business. Another was a cowboy Jim did not know. The other was a young farmer, a fellow who he knew quite well. Jim had a pleasant smile on his face as he approached the young man, intending to engage him in conversation.
"Good afternoon, Jake," said the sheriff. The young man had seen Jim approaching and had turned his body toward him to greet him.
"Hi, Jim," replied Jake, also smiling. "It's nice to see you."
"It's nice to see you, too," said Jim. "How's your mother doing? And how are your sisters? I haven't seen them for a while."
"They're doing okay," Jake informed him. "You should come out to the farm and see us sometime."
"I will," promised Jim. "Please give them my best."
The sheriff noticed that young Jake was wearing a gun belt that afternoon with a six-shooter hanging in a holster against his hip. He recognized the gun. It was Jake's father's .36 caliber Colt handgun. Although it weighed only two pounds, nine ounces, the weight of the gun belt was dragging slightly on Jake's trousers. Jake had a very thin waist and the tail of his shirt had come out of the back of his pants. Jim was certain that the young man was unaware of this.
Jake Keegan was in town that day having been to the bank and then the general store. His buckboard was parked on the dirt street beside the saloon, loaded with the farm supplies that he had just purchased. As was his routine on the days he came to town, he visited the saloon before heading home. He always limited himself to one glass of whiskey, as he didn't have the money for anything more. Although Jake was sixteen years old and tall for his age, he sometimes seemed to be older than he actually was. Only the narrowness of his shoulders and the smoothness of his face gave him away. His family was well established in the area and the townsfolk considered them to be locals.
Jim Larson and Jake's father, Clem, had served in the Union Army together. They had become close friends. Jim was present when Clem fell during the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863 where he took a rebel's bayonet in the stomach on Missionary Ridge. Clem had died quickly without ever again speaking. Jim had decided that he would try and watch over his friend's family in the years ahead as best he could. Although he now had a wife and family of his own, he always made himself available to the Keegan's whenever they might need him. Jim sensed that today might be one of those occasions.
"Jake, do you have a few minutes before you head home?" Jim asked. "I'd like to speak with you about something."
Jim Larson had a serious tone in his voice that Jake Keegan did not miss. He assumed that whatever Jim wanted to discuss had to be important. He was immediately curious.
"Sure, Jim," he replied. "What is it that you want to say?"
"It's really not a discussion for a saloon," said Jim. "Finish your drink and we can go over to my office for a few minutes. There's more privacy there."
Jake lifted his glass and quickly drank the remaining whiskey. His facial expression revealed that he had not yet fully acquired his taste for whiskey. This would still take some time. Jake set the glass on the bar and motioned to the bartender that he was leaving. He had already paid.
"I'll see you later, Charlie," he said to the bartender. The bartender nodded in return.
Without saying another word, Jake followed Jim out the door and onto the wooden boardwalk outside. The unknown cowboy standing at the bar watched curiously as the two men left. Once outside, they crossed the dusty street and walked until they reached the Sheriff's Office. It was located down the street from the saloon, standing directly between the bank and the blacksmith shop. Upon reaching the front door, Jim opened it and invited Jake inside. As they entered the office, Jim took off his gray Stetson and hung it on a hook, revealing his balding head. Jake kept his hat on his head.
"Have a seat," invited Jim, motioning toward a couple of wooden chairs located against the front wall. Jake sat down as requested. Jim then took his own seat, sitting in the chair behind the sheriff's desk.
Jim left the front door open. It was warm in the office that afternoon as the sunlight shined into the room through the glass window on the front of the building. The room smelled musty due to the building's location on the busy, dirt street. By nature, Jim Larson was a very direct individual and he wasn't good at making small talk. As soon as he and Jake were situated, he began speaking to the young man.
"So, Jake," the sheriff began, "I noticed that you're wearing your daddy's gun belt today. When did you start wearing it?"
"A few weeks ago," explained Jake. "It's been hanging on a nail in the barn ever since he left. I've always known that it would be my gun some day. I finally decided to take it down, clean it and oil it, and begin wearing it. I like wearing it."
Jim nodded his head in understanding. "Of course, you do. It was your daddy's. Have you ever fired it?"
"Sure I have," replied Jake. "It fires really well."
"How often have you fired it?" Jim inquired inquisitively.
"Probably twenty or thirty times," said Jake. "I've got a pretty good feel for it."
"Have you?" asked Jim. "You know, Jake, carrying a handgun is a big responsibility. When a man wears a gun, he's telling the world that he's ready to use it. Do you really believe that firing that gun thirty times qualifies you to use it?"
Jake was quiet now, not knowing how to respond to the sheriff's question. The gun was his, no doubt about it. He had every legal right to carry it. He planned to practice with it at home when he had the time. He wondered if perhaps Jim was getting into an area that was really none of his business. Jim wasn't his father, just a family friend.
"Jake, listen to me," said the sheriff. "You may wear that gun for the next forty years and never have a problem. Who knows? Unfortunately, there are some bad characters out there and you may be tested at some time."
"Tested how?" asked Jake.
"Some guy, somewhere, may want to see for himself just how well you can handle it. He'll provoke you, trying to entice you to draw. He, of course, will be confident that his hand will be faster than yours. Otherwise, he'd leave you alone."
"I can ignore people like that," stated Jake. "I've always had thick skin. It's not easy to taunt me into a fight."
"Perhaps not," said Jim, "but if you aren't wearing a gun, you'll never be in that situation. You may have an occasional fistfight but that will be the end of it. A gun changes everything. When you wear a gun, any argument can quickly get out of hand. The other guy may decide to draw his gun and shoot you before you have a chance to shoot him. Only the most ruthless person will shoot an unarmed man. These are facts, Jake. That's just the way it is."
Jake didn't like how this conversation was going. He wished that he was already on his way home. He decided to bring the discussion to a conclusion.
"Did you know my daddy?" Jake asked Jim. He, of course, already knew the answer to his question.
"Yes, Jake," Jim replied. "You know I did. He was a good man, one of the best."
"Yeah, I know he was," responded Jake. "He was no coward. I'm his son and you know what? I'm no coward, either. My daddy wore this gun and I'm going to wear it, too. Don't worry about me, Jim. I appreciate your concern. I'll work hard on my shooting at home. I'm sure that I'll get a lot better."
Jim Larson had no intention of trying to dissuade young Jake from wearing the gun. He realized that there were many reasons why a man living in the rural west might need one. Nevertheless, he was pleased that Jake seemed to understand the message. If Jake was going to carry a gun, he needed to become proficient in using it. Jim believed that it was important for Jake to develop his gun handling skills as quickly as possible. Jim stood and walked to the shelves located behind his desk next to the rifle rack attached to the back wall. He removed a wooden box containing bullets from the middle shelf. Although Jim wore a lawman's Colt 45 handgun on duty, he also owned a couple of .36 caliber Colt handguns. He liked to use them for target practice. He stood from his chair, walked across the room and handed the box of bullets to Jake.
"Here, Jake," instructed Jim. "Take these. You need to practice with that gun. You're going to need ammo, lots of it. Owning a gun can get expensive."
Knowing that Jake was going to be wearing the gun, Jim wanted him to become confident in shooting it. He'd do his best to keep Jake supplied with bullets until the boy became a little older. This was the least he could do for the son of his good friend, Clem.
"Thanks, Jim," said Jake, standing as he extended his arm and shook hands with the sheriff. "You're a good guy. I'll be careful with this gun. And I'll work hard. I promise."
Jim trusted that Jake would do as he promised. However, his experience as a lawman told him that the unexpected could always happen. He patted Jake on the shoulder and again encouraged him to practice shooting the gun as often as possible. Meanwhile, he would just have to hope for the best.
Jim and Jake exited the sheriff's office together. Jim started to walk across the street to the Northern Lights where he intended to have his dinner. Jake walked beside him since his buckboard was parked on the street beside the saloon. Jake was anxious to be getting home. He still had some chores to do before dark. Suddenly, the two men were startled by the sound of a loud gunshot coming from inside the saloon. Immediately thereafter, they heard men's voices hollering and screaming. Something was wrong. Jim began to run toward the saloon, causing a horse and rider to abruptly halt on the street as he passed closely in front of them. Jake followed immediately behind. As Jim reached the front door, he quickly pulled his gun from its holster before carefully going inside. Following the sheriff's example, Jake set the wooden box of bullets on the boardwalk and drew his gun, holding it in his hand as he entered the barroom. He was unprepared for he was about to see.
The young cowboy was lying on his back in the sawdust on the floor in front of the bar. He had lost his hat and his pistol lay on the floor, a few feet away. He had a gunshot wound in his right leg, four inches or so above his knee. His brown pant leg was soaked with blood and he was suffering considerable pain.
"What happened?" demanded the sheriff.
"We were talking together," explained one of the miners. "He got mad about something we said and he went for his gun. I had to shoot him, sheriff. He was going to shoot me." Charlie, the bartender, and the other miner concurred with the shooter's statement.
Jim Larson knelt beside the injured cowboy, "Is that what happened, son?"
"No, sheriff," he replied through his gritted teeth. "I was leaving. I went to my pants pocket to get my money to pay for my drinks. That's when he shot me. If I'd gone for my gun, I would have shot him first, no doubt."
Sheriff Larson shook his head in dismay and looked closely at Jake Keegan. They had both already put their guns away. Although Jim spoke no words, the expression on his face said everything. He and Jake had just discussed the inherent danger of armed men getting into an argument. He'd seen this happen too many times. He hoped that Jake was taking a good look at what he was now seeing.
The cowboy's leg was bleeding badly. "Somebody go for the doctor," instructed Jim. "He needs to get here as soon as possible."
"I'll go," volunteered one of the cowboys who'd been playing poker. The closest doctor lived in the town of Millington, several miles away. Jim knew that it would be a couple of hours before the doctor could get there. The cowboy left the saloon and almost immediately, they could hear the sound of his horse galloping up the street and out of town.
The wounded cowboy was becoming increasingly pale and lethargic. He was losing a lot of blood. Jim was afraid that the boy wouldn't last until the doctor arrived. Jim had received some basic medical training while in the Union Army. He realized that he was going to have to put this training to use if the boy was to have any chance of surviving.
"Take off his boots," instructed Jim to the other men who were all now standing over the injured cowboy. "Then pull off his trousers. Be careful. His wound is painful. Try not to hurt him too much."
Two men did as requested and removed the boots and the trousers from the cowboy.
"Get me some hot water," said Jim as he began to examine the bullet wound. "My God, this is really bad."
Jim immediately pulled the bandana from around his own neck. He wound it lengthwise until it became somewhat stiff. Wrapping it around the cowboy's thigh, just above the wound, he pulled it tight and made a tourniquet. He had Jake pull one side of the bandana while he pulled the other, making the tourniquet even tighter, as tight as possible.
"That will have to do until the doctor gets here," declared Jim. "I don't know what else to do."
"Will the tourniquet save his life?" asked Jake, who felt quite shaken by what he was witnessing. Jim noticed the concern and fright in his eyes.
"Quite likely not," replied Jim. "We'll have to wait and see. At best, he's going to lose his leg. The tourniquet will kill it. Without the tourniquet, he won't last another five minutes."
The manager of the saloon allowed the men to put the young cowboy in one of the bedrooms upstairs. There they removed his remaining clothes and one of the women gave him a sponge bath with the hot water. Jim did his best to treat the wound and get it clean. Jim was certain that the bullet had hit a major artery in the leg, causing the heavy bleeding. When the woman and Jim were finished, they covered the boy with a sheet and a blanket to keep him warm. He had already lost consciousness while lying on the floor downstairs. His condition was extremely critical.
Jim needed to get back to the office. He would investigate the shooting further tomorrow. He went downstairs, ate quickly and then went back across the street. He would check on the boy later, hoping that the doctor would be coming before too long. Jake decided to stay in the room with the boy, not wanting him to be alone. He did take a couple of minutes to put the wooden box of bullets in the back of the buckboard still parked outside. The saloon downstairs had become busy as the afternoon became evening. The women would not have time to nurse the wounded patient. Jake knew nothing about medicine but he would try to help as best he could.
About eight o'clock, Jake heard the boy begin to breathe loudly with much difficulty. Immediately, he wet a cloth with the now cold water and held it against the boy's forehead. Jake sensed what was happening. He was certain that the boy was in the early throes of death. From that point, the boy went quickly. As Jake covered the cowboy's head with the sheet and the blanket, tears of pity filled his eyes. Although he hadn't known him and had paid little attention to him while they were drinking at the bar downstairs earlier in the afternoon, he felt grief for him. The cowboy had died away from home in the midst of strangers with no family or friends present. Jake was only about two or three years younger than the cowboy. He couldn't believe how such a young, vibrant life had been taken so suddenly and so violently.
Jake felt despondent as he left the dead cowboy alone in the room, buried beneath the sheet and the blanket on the bed. He walked down the stairs, through the saloon and out the front door. He only then realized as he stepped off the wooden boardwalk and into the street, just how warm it had been inside the building. The cool night air felt wonderful as he stood in the light breeze and allowed it to fill his lungs. Jake walked directly to his buckboard, deciding that he would go straight home without first saying good night to Jim Larson. The death of the young cowboy had been an emotional experience for him and he knew that if he was to see Jim again that evening, he would break down. He'd been trying to convince Jim earlier that he'd become a man, a man who was ready to handle a handgun. He would feel ashamed if Jim was to now see him crying.
As Jake reached the buckboard, he took off his gun belt and put it in the back with the farm supplies and his bullets, no longer feeling like wearing it. He then climbed aboard the wagon and began his drive home. If nothing unexpected happened, he would be back at the farm in forty-five minutes. About thirty minutes into his trip, he passed two riders in the dark who were traveling in the opposite direction back toward town. He recognized one rider as the cowboy who had left the saloon earlier that afternoon to get the doctor. He assumed that the other rider was the doctor. Jake made no attempt to stop the riders and inform them of the young cowboy's demise. He was certain that they would have proceeded to town anyway.
When Jake reached the farm, he parked the buckboard inside the barn. From there, he could see his mother looking for him from the farmhouse through a downstairs window. She obviously had been concerned because he was so late in returning from town. Jake waved to her and hollered that he'd be inside in about twenty minutes. Unhitching the horses from the buckboard, he led them to their stalls where he gave them hay and water. He quickly rubbed them down with a couple of towels as they were perspiring from the trip. He would leave the supplies on the buckboard and would put them away in the morning.
As Jake prepared to close the barn doors for the night, he saw the wall where his father's gun belt had hung for so many years. He knew immediately what he needed to do. Slowly, he walked back inside the barn and retrieved the gun belt from the buckboard. He hung it back on the wall. For the time being, at least, Jake knew that that was where it belonged. Until he would become proficient in using it, he would not wear it. For a brief moment, he thought about the dead boy in Wide River and he began to weep, feeling great sympathy for him. This was the emotional release that he needed. After a few minutes, unable to cry any longer, he dried his eyes on his shirtsleeve. Then convinced that he had himself back under control, he closed the doors of the barn and walked to the house to see his family. Still only a boy himself, he was the man of the house. He was pleased to be home for the night. He'd be getting up early in the morning. He planned on going back to town. He wanted to be present and if needed, to assist in the burial of the young cowboy.